Preface: writing is how I process things. This post is about grief and death. It isn’t edited and I didn’t proofread so ignore any errors. It’s just a short narrative of my experience.
The box sat on my dining room table for weeks.
I didn’t really know where else to put it. I mean, what’s the best place to put ashes while they wait to be buried? The closet? A sideboard? I’m not an expert on these things. Hell, I’ve never even been to a funeral and now I find myself in the unique position of planning one.
I suppose that’s the burden of being the responsible one in the family. Everyone just kind of expects you to handle stuff.
We weren’t terribly close, my niece and I. A phone call here or there, a text message on birthdays. My last Happy Birthday message went unanswered. I figured she was too busy to see it but, come to find out, she had already died.
And now…there she was, all 120 pounds of her, in a thick plastic bag, neatly zip tied at the top. It looks like sand. When people say ashes you picture ashes from a fire. Fine and gray. This looked like it was scooped up on the beach. I could’ve gone without actually seeing inside, but I’m the responsible one and my other niece, her half-sister, wanted to put some in an urn.
So I scooped a tablespoon or so into a small tin and taped it shut. Should I label it? No, she knows what’s inside. I hoped it was enough, it would have to be because I wasn’t doing that again.
The bag was in a box, in another box, in a USPS box. All I kept thinking was wow….that’s it. Your entire life, all of the things you accumulate and prioritize, the stuff that surrounds you, none of it really matters. You just end up in the ground, maybe as beach sand.
We didn’t have a choice on whether to have a cremation or not. She sat unclaimed, abandoned was the official status, for months in who knows what kind of warehouse of beach sand boxes. That’s what happens if you die and no one knows you know? Or if you die and you have no one. The state cremates you and files you away. I’m the responsible one, so it was up to me to bring her home.
I lost it when I opened the box and saw the flag. I’ve seen plenty of flags of course. I see them everyday up close but this one was different. It was brand new. Folded neatly in a box. So many boxes. I took it out and ran my fingers along the stars and stripes, my breath catching in my throat, blinking back the warm tears, but they came too fast and raced down my cheeks in errant streams. The grief comes in waves. One minute you’re fine and the next, it’s washing over you as you try and stay afloat. An unpredictable ebb and flow of sorts.
I stacked the flag on top of her and made a phone call. Responsible people make phone calls and get things done after all. It sat there, a morbid to-do pile, until the day of the funeral when I transported it to the cemetery staff. They do this every day, multiple times a day, crazy. She served for a short spell in the Army so she was entitled to a military burial at a military cemetery. I took care of all of the arrangements and it was a touching thing to witness. It was hot out and I was in my dress uniform, hoping the buttons wouldn’t betray me and go whizzing across the room due to my fluffier than usual state. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as much pride as I did that day to wear the uniform.
I’m sure she would appreciate it.